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Don’t be that guy: A guide to asking nonstupid questions during scientific talks

One day, when she was in first grade, my daughter came home filled with fear. She never wanted to be a third grader, she said. Apparently, she had seen a sign outside the third-grade classroom that read, “THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS.”

I remember that philosophy, the comforting principle that allows students to prioritize their own learning, to ask for clarification whenever something didn’t make sense. Confused about today’s assignment? Just ask! There are no stupid questions!

It turns out my daughter misunderstood the language on the banner. She interpreted the entire sign as belligerent, as in “Hey, kids, questions are stupid, and we will permit none of them. You’re in third grade now, bucko. No. More. STUPID. FREAKING. QUESTIONS.” This misunderstanding legitimately agitated her, and when I explained what the sign meant, not only was she relieved, but she couldn’t wait to tell her best friend, who had also started to dread the miserable, authoritarian restrictiveness of third grade.

I felt relieved, too, that I had eased my daughter’s worry. But then I started to think: I’m a scientist. And although asking questions is a fundamental tenet of good science, I’ve also attended hundreds of seminars and lectures. And I have to tell ya: Sometimes there are stupid questions.

For example, I was sitting in a class once where a student would not let go of the idea that the lecturer’s slide was technically imperfect. The conversation pretty much went like this:

STUDENT: But isn’t that an oversimplification?

TEACHER: Yes, it is, for teaching purposes. I’m trying to illustrate a general point.

STUDENT: But that’s an oversimplification.

TEACHER: Indeed. Because I am oversimplifying.

STUDENT: Yeah, but when you think about it, isn’t that an oversimplification?

STUDENT’S UNSPOKEN SUBTEXT: Look, everyone, I’m smart enough to engage with the lecturer on her level.

TEACHER’S UNSPOKEN SUBTEXT: Shut your face, you little turd.

The dude would not rest until he had forced the teacher to concede, apologize, and genuflect. So, yes. There is such a thing as a stupid question.

I’m not going to break the news to my daughter just yet, but I think the readers of Science Careers will understand that not every question deserves the oxygen it’s given. Here are some examples of stupid questions that you’d do well in your scientific career to avoid:

The Question Asked Combatively

Science thrives on arguments. But it also warrants collegiality, so calm your little socially maladjusted self. If you have an antagonistic question that you really would like to hear addressed—and darn it all, you just can’t think of a way to ask it without sounding rude—maybe ask later. In fact, that might even prove more productive: If you want to see a speaker get less defensive and consider your criticism more seriously, try chatting with them when they’re not in front of an audience.

A Special Question Just For You!

Questions don’t just exist for clarification; they’re also a way to extend the presentation and spark discussion. When you raise your hand, think about whether you’re raising a topic of value to the whole room—as opposed to, say, a question purely about a topic that only you care about. This is a group session. This is not Snowflake McUnicorn’s Personal Afternoon Chat.

The “Question” That Ends In A Period

Those are called comments. Admittedly, sometimes comments add as much to the conversation as questions do. But the bar is higher for an insightful comment than an insightful question; a question shows that you’re curious, and a comment shows that you’ve got it solved. Think carefully whether your comment serves a purpose other than your own need to demonstrate your intelligence.

Pandora’s Question

For goodness sake, pick one question. Maybe two. But don’t stand up, flip through a legal pad, and proceed to deliver a monologue that includes three comments, a criticism masquerading as a suggestion, a suggestion masquerading as a judgment, a judgment masquerading as a muttered interjection, two types of unwanted guidance that border on harassment, and nine questions.

The Randomly Timed Question

Know when to ask a question. When the speaker says, “Any questions?”—hey, that’s a great time. In fact, that’s the best time! Alternatively, when a slide comes up that you’d like clarified, find a break in the speaker’s delivery to politely interrupt. Did you catch the important words there: “break” and “politely”? Don’t bust into the intellectual narrative like the Kool-Aid Man.

The Question That, OK, Let Me Think Of How To Explain This … So, If You Had—Well, Maybe Not, But … OK, Yeah, It’s Kind Of Like What I’m Thinking About But Not The Same As … Um, OK, So, Hmm. Why Is Everyone Looking At Me?

When the speaker calls on you, that’s not your signal to start thinking of a question. You’ve had many, many minutes to formulate the ideal query. If you think you’ll forget, you can even write it down! Remember that while you’re asking your question, the other people in the room are ALL WAITING FOR YOU.

The Question That Someone Else Just Asked

Sometimes when your hand is raised, a colleague asks your question before you can. Great minds and all that. The proper protocol at this point is to put your hand down—or, if called on before you can do so, to quickly admit that you were going to ask the same question and then put your hand down. Let someone new have a turn; that question has been answered. The correct action is not to say, “I was going to ask the same question,” then proceed to ask a version of the question that 99% resembles the one just asked—the logic being, I suppose, that you don’t want your colleague to upstage you. We get it. Your brilliance must not go uncredited. Move on.

The Question That Refers To A Slide You Can’t Remember

“I have a question about one of the slides you showed. It was somewhere in the middle. Not that one. Go back a slide. Now go back a few more. Back back back. Hmm. Maybe it was forward? Go forward. Forward again. It’s the slide with the graph. I don’t remember what it looked like. You know, the slide. With the graph.” No one wants to watch your little game of Simon Says. Give the speaker a better hint, or just ask your question.

The Question That Reveals You Weren’t Listening

Sometimes you just can’t pay attention. That’s OK; you’re human. But if you spend the seminar daydreaming or making a shopping list or doodling a cartoon, you kind of forfeit your right to ask questions. Because of all the stupid questions, perhaps the stupidest is “I wasn’t listening. Can you please indulge my inattention with a personalized lecture for my distracted self?” When you stop listening, you don’t know what you don’t know—so you don’t know whether you’re about to ask something enlightening or something the speaker already explained quite well.

If there’s a common theme here, it’s this: The purpose of your question should not be to celebrate, advertise, or broadcast anything about you. The purpose should be to ask a question.

Have you ever asked a question in a seminar and had the speaker begin their reply with, “That’s a great question”? Doesn’t that feel amazing? The best questions are asked not because the asker wants to demonstrate their own prowess, but because the talk has ignited in them a genuine curiosity.

You can’t believe everything you learn in third grade: It turns out there are stupid questions.

Any questions?

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